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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Schanne v. Addis, — A.3d —, No. 106 MAP 2014, 2015 WL 4920770 (Pa. Aug. 17, 2015).

September 10, 2015

Plaintiff appealed from an order granting defendant summary judgment in a defamation action.  Plaintiff was a high school teacher terminated after defendant, a former student, made allegations to her friend that she and the teacher had been romantically involved during her senior year in high school.  The friend, an employee of the high school, reported the allegations to the school, which led to a termination hearing that defendant refused to attend.   The school district subsequently terminated defendant’s employment and plaintiff then filed the defamation action against the former student claiming that the romantic relationship did not begin until after the student graduated high school.  Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that her statements were protected by judicial privilege.  The district court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed to the state’s intermediate appellate court, which certified the question at issue to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:  “Does the absolute judicial privilege apply to an allegation of sexual misconduct by a teacher by a former student, which allegation was made prior to the commencement of any quasi-judicial proceeding and without an intent that the allegation lead to a quasi-judicial proceeding?”  The court answered in the negative, beginning by noting that Pennsylvania law “places reputational interest on the highest plane.”  Notwithstanding this interest, the court explained that Pennsylvania also recognizes a judicial privilege that provides absolute immunity for communications that are made in the course of judicial proceedings, regardless of whether the communications are false or made with malice.  The court noted that the important purpose of the privilege is to allow justice to be administered freely without fear of consequences.   The court also noted that although judicial privilege has expanded over time, it has been limited to situations where the administration of justice is likely to be substantially affected.  The court reasoned that in this case, the statements were made in advance of any judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings, and significantly, they were made without the intent that they lead to such proceedings.  The court found this fact relevant, as the judicial privilege operates to provide an incentive for individuals to speak freely in seeking to initiate judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings.   The court reasoned that where a declarant has no intention of initiating proceedings, providing the statement with immunity does not serve the goals of the privilege.  In reaching its conclusion, the court clarified that its opinion should not be applied in cases where schoolchildren—who are less sophisticated than adults as to matters of reporting protocol and procedures—report misconduct by school employees while they are still enrolled at the school.  But the court found it important to its resolution of the issue in this case that the former student was 26-years-old.  The court held that judicial privilege does not apply to an allegation made by an adult before commencement of a judicial proceeding and without intent that it lead to one.